Christian Collegians Feed Minds at Chesterton House
- 2005 7 Nov
One of the last places one would expect to find shallow thought is in the seemingly bottomless well of Christian fellowship on college campuses.
Little depth during discussion is supposed to be reserved for the secular student population, right? The “church kids,” meanwhile, stay up until the wee hours debating the merits of Calvinism and the mind of Tozer, right?
Not exactly. At least that's not Josh Pothen discovered when arriving as a thinking Christian at Cornell University.
“I had hoped that I would find deeper Christians at Cornell,” Pothen said. “While there are certainly smarter people, I am still quite surprised that this is not the case: good Christian thinkers are still the proverbial oddballs in their fellowships.”
Cornell is not alone. On many college campuses, students often tend to think they can be either smart or spiritual, but not both.
That either/or mentality perplexed Pothen. In his view, Christian students often are unintentional dualists when it comes to faith and academics.
“Either they focus so much on making the grade that they neglect their spiritual lives, or they focus on shallow Christian pietistic teaching so much that they neglect their studies, seeing them as hindrances and burdens,” he said.
Fortunately for Pothen, another Cornell student had experienced similar frustrations nearly 20 years earlier, but ultimately did something about it by helping establish the Chesterton House, where the scriptural command to love God with all one's mind is taken seriously and put into practice.
Karl Johnson arrived at Cornell in 1985 with a Christian background that quickly became bankrupt.
“It's no secret that students attending secular universities stop practicing their faith during their college years as a result of the secular culture that, at the moment, dominates,” Johnson said. “I went through an impression that Christianity was weak. Only over time did I come to realize that Christianity had a long and rich intellectual heritage. When I discovered that, it was a great encouragement to my faith.”
Johnson determined not to let his unfortunate experience happen to others, so five years ago he founded the Chesterton House – the name comes from the British author Gilbert Keith Chesterton – which helps Christian students integrate faith with scholarship.
“I want to make it easier for students to find the resources to make connections between their intellectual and religious life,'' he said.
The Chesterton House, and others like it across the country, do not simply stress mental exercise, but encourage students to participate in the creation and critique of cultural forms that influence everyday life.
Feeding the brain may be the beginning point, but feeding the flock is a large part of the intellectual journey.
“Chesterton House dares to get involved in the academic debate and inject fresh, intellectual Christian thought,'' Pothen said. “Whether through demonstrating that religion and science are both important spheres of knowledge ... or by reminding us Christians of our responsibility to bring hope to the world through the smallest of actions.”
One thing Chesterton House is not, or at least tries not to be, is a highbrow haven for spiritual elites to impress each other with their knowledge. Instead, the idea is to positively influence culture, which explains why the House hosts movie nights.
“God has given wisdom and insight not only to those he saved but those he created,” Johnson said. “So even Hollywood movies still get to themes of brokenness of the world and loneliness and alienation and strong yearnings for the world to be a better place.”
The movie list includes everything from the tame to the tense; small independent foreign films to the more commercial “Fight Club.”
The House, located a block off campus, also organizes lectures, conferences and round tables hosted by nationally-known speakers such as former Cambridge physicist John Polkinghorne.
Books are a big part of the House, as well. But don't go there looking for current best sellers.
“We have books that you'll never find in a Christian bookstore, and the students tend to be surprised and encouraged that this stuff exists, because no one is telling them about it,” Johnson said. “They're not encountering it in the classroom or church.”
The Chesterton House doesn't limit its vision to enriching student life, because it considers that strategy something of a one-way street. If students are to successfully influence the culture, then those who “create” the culture also need to be reached.
Andy Crouch, a columnist for Christianity Today, Cornell alumnus and friend of the Chesterton House, points out that many campus ministries reach only into the university, otherwise known as the student population. The academy, which includes the professors and professionals who work for and do research at the university, are mainly untouched by Christian ministries.
Part of the neglect is intentional – “the academy is the target of Christian hostility,'' Crouch said – and part is the impression (usually accurate) that the academy wants no part of “religious” dealings.
“We need Christians to move into that space and start conversations so that the academy starts to let down its prejudices against Christians and vice versa,” Crouch said.
Ultimately, campus endeavors like Chesterton House and other players in the Christian study movement seek to nourish the intellect without overfeeding it, which should result in glorification of God.
“It's not that being intellectual is the highest good,” Crouch said. “But neglecting your mind when you've got a really good one is a waste.”